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Narendra Modi

All talk and no action: Modi’s unfulfilled promises take the shine off his grand vision for a better India

Priya Virmani says recent election results show India’s young voters are losing faith in the prime minister and his ability to deliver on the commitments he made to make life better for ordinary people

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 1:51pm

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just concluded his visit to the UK, where he received a rock star’s welcome. However, back in India, put your ear to the ground and you will hear a different story – one of misgivings.

Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has just lost elections in the key state of Bihar. This is Modi’s first major electoral setback since he rode into the prime ministerial office in May 2014, and the defeat has come as a complete surprise to his party. The Bihar elections were lost because of promises made but not kept – like those on the provision of livelihoods and the availability of electricity.

On the international stage, Modi has been marketing the grand narratives of “Make in India”, “Digital India” and “Smart Cities”. These concepts are grand in scope but low on delivery. For example, the promise to provide electricity to 18,000 additional Indian villages will remain unfulfilled until the lack of policy support is addressed.

Hitting deadlines and improving waiting times for government functions and decision-making – including on civic documents like passports and driving licences, and the outcome of government tenders – are more unfulfilled promises, while India’s agrarian crisis and the number of farmer suicides have not abated.

Cleaning up obscene government excesses has also remained just talk. Stories of bribe-taking and conspicuous corruption abound. Entrepreneurs say bribes are still sought openly, but now government officials often demand that phones be kept in view during negotiations, to ensure they are not being recorded.

Following Modi’s mantra of “minimum government and maximum governance”, last week, the government relaxed foreign direct investment restrictions in more than 15 sectors, to encourage foreign investors to “Make in India”.

But Modi’s global showmanship has yet to translate into meaningful change at the grass-roots level – the life of the common person remains largely the same.

One of Modi’s flagship programmes has been the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign. A tax of 0.5 per cent has been levied on all services to fund this initiative. Yet, people are becoming increasingly resentful of such taxes. On the one hand, there are no visible improvements. It is common to see men urinating in public against walls with Swachh Bharat written on them. On the other hand, one billion rupees (HK$120 million) has been spent just on advertisements for the campaign – a campaign that has been purely cosmetic, with no meaningful initiatives such as community involvement, auditing of civic cleaning or the upgrading of cleaning processes.

Villagers remain uneducated about sanitary hygiene and are still defecating in the open

Some 660 million Indians – 55 per cent of the population – don’t have access to a toilet. The Clean India programme claims to be addressing this by building more toilets in rural India. But this endeavour is also plagued with serious failings. The amount assigned for construction of each toilet is actually only a third of what is needed. Functionality, access, maintenance and waste management are all being overlooked. Villagers remain uneducated about sanitary hygiene and are still defecating in the open.

Modi loves telling his story – of how a tea seller at a railway station became prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. But India remains a country of rampant corruption, entrenched nepotism and gender inequalities.

The real threat from Modi is not that he is altering the secular fabric of India. This secular fabric, that India is so proud of, is actually a travesty. Modi is simply doing by day what his predecessors did by night.

The real danger is that “aspirational India” (mainly the youth, who comprise 65 per cent of the population) is becoming frustrated. They are not seeing the changes Modi promised and that they were confident he would deliver. That confidence is waning. The cracks are becoming clear.

Dr Priya Virmani is a political and economic analyst